The 2020 Castrol Toyota Racing Series with its new FT60 car, more Super Licence points and the most diverse field in its history, is proving to be a huge success both here in New Zealand and around the world.
As we come down to the final three races and the 65th running of the historic New Zealand Grand Prix, the series is on a knife edge. The last four weeks and 12 races have been dominated by two drivers with very different backgrounds, yet a similar hunger for success in their chosen sport.
Current champion Liam Lawson of New Zealand leads the series by a slender eight-points over his teammate at M2 Competition, Igor Fraga of Sao Paolo, Brazil.
Its been a fascinating battle of wits at each and every round so far, with both drivers scoring podiums or wins.
Lawson won two races at Highlands Motorsport Park in Cromwell to kick off the defence of his title and left the opening round with a 15-point lead. He then extended it at Teretonga Park a week later with another feature race win, leaving the South Island with an 18-point lead.
Back to the North Island at Hampton Downs Motorsport Park and Fraga had his day. A win in race one followed by winning the prestigious Denny Hulme Memorial Trophy feature race. This was an extra prize for the South American whose greatest rewards have mostly been in cyberspace.
It is a real Formula One Grand Prix trophy dating back to 1974 and Denny Hulme’s final Grand Prix win in Argentina. Fraga who is not one for over emotion was clearly moved by the honour and a return to the championship lead by nine-points.
Last weekend it was on to Pukekohe and round four where once again Lawson and Fraga went head to head around the historic circuit with each giving their all to stay in contention. Both holding off a fast charging field of youngsters, now all dialed in and up to speed chasing the Super Licence points ahead of their Northern Hemisphere summer racing season.
Lawson, on home turf, was sublime winning the first race over Fraga with a bold move at turn five on the opening lap where the pair touched wheels. Lawson made it stick and never looked back.
In race two, the reverse grid would hamper both Fraga and Lawson as they finished 4th and 5th with Australian Jackson Walls taking his first win in the series.
In the feature race for the prestigious New Zealand Motor Cup, a trophy that Lawson had yet to win, the young Kiwi raised his game another level while Fraga had to set the reset button after spinning on the very first lap.
After a wheel to wheel drag race to the first corner, this time Lawson won the fight as Fraga blinked first and allowed Lawson to lead into turn two. Disaster struck for the 21 year-old Brazilian when he was hit from behind by Gregoire Saucy of Switzerland and turned around onto the grass as the field filed by.
Saved by a safety car after another incident in the same corner, Fraga rejoined at the back with no damage, but a mountain to climb. His rival Lawson remained at the front.
At the restart and with the understanding that Fraga was at the back, Lawson was now unfettered to race hard and without the worry of looking in his mirrors for the Brazilian. He drove, in my opinion, one of his best races of his young career, setting fastest lap after fastest lap. It was like he was out testing on his own rather than trying to win one of New Zealand’s most prestigious trophy’s, previously won by the likes of Chris Amon, Stirling Moss, John Surtees and Jackie Stewart.
The onslaught of quick fire laps continued while Fraga was equally impressive scything his way through the field to finish an eventful eighth
Lawson was in his element and totally in the zone. Dropping his lap time by seven-tenths over the next 12 laps (from lap 7 on) and then on lap 19, he finally dipped under the 1 minute mark clocking a 59.995. This was quickly followed on the final lap with 59.997 as he took the chequered flag by almost seven-seconds ahead of Argentina’s Franco Colapinto.
It was a stunning display of confidence and race craft and more importantly it was enough to give him the championship lead again by a scant eight-points. Fraga saved his misfortune with a hard fought eighth for vital points in his quest for the championship title.
Now as we come down to the finale and the 65th Grand Prix at Manfeild it is perfectly poised for another classic weekend showdown. Three races, two men, one championship.
Its a fascinating battle of wits between two teammates with very different lives and career paths.
Fraga was born in Japan and moved to Brazil when he was twelve with his Brazilian parents. Liam Lawson was born in Hastings and grew up an Aucklander.
Lawson had the traditional motorsport background. None of his family were motorsports people and his brother and sisters all had different interests. None of them were motorsports.
So Liam did his own thing and introduced by a school friend, he started karting at seven years of age before moving on to Formula First and winning rookie of the year honours at age 13 years-old.
As for Fraga, his father Fabrizio bought him a Gran Turismo set up at the age of three where he learned the basics before going karting in Japan and then Brazil. All the time continuing to develop his cyber skills with Gran Turismo 3 – still his favourite game at the age of 21.
Lawson dominated his first year of Formula Ford in New Zealand winning 14 out of 15 races. The motor racing community soon began to take notice of the young blonde sensation tearing up New Zealand’s tracks and soon a conglomerate of eight financial backers was formed to take him to compete in Australia Formula 4 to see if he could really cut it.
He proved he had-it finishing runner up in the 2017 championship. Following that he received the crucial backing of the Kiwi Driver fund and a drive in last season’s TRS which has been the ultimate life line financially to many Kiwis trying to chase their motorsport dream.
Fraga made his way through partial seasons in Brazilian F3 when he could afford to run. Then in USF2000, his hunger and desire to make it was remembered with awe by Road to Indy business development manager, Jonny Baker
“Igor would race on discarded tyres from his other competitors and he would sleep in his rental car in the car park just to keep his dream going.”
Igor finished fourth overall in 2018 USF2000 with three podiums.
In the same 2018 season, Lawson moved to Europe to compete in the German ADAC Formula 4 Championship where he finished runner up in his first season.
On his return to New Zealand in 2019, he entered his first Castrol Toyota Racing Series as a 16 year-old rookie. Racing for M2 competition, he dominated on his debut at Highlands taking two race wins by over nine seconds, winning the feature Dorothy Smith Memorial Trophy race. He left Highlands Motorsport Park with the championship lead.
Over the next month he dominated the series claiming an additional three wins, including the New Zealand Grand Prix in his first attempt. It was a close race all the way to the chequered flag with fellow Kiwi Marcus Armstrong, already a Ferrari academy driver.
At the same time Fraga was busy around the world winning gaming competitions at the highest level of Esports to become the world’s greatest gamer to date. He won the inaugural FIA Gran Turismo Nations Cup and McLaren Shadow racing series in 2018, and also competed in the 2017 Formula One eSports Series.
He then followed up in the real world with the Formula Regional European Championships in Europe where he finished third overall with DR Formula By RP motorsport.
Lawson had a whirlwind 2019 himself. Two days after winning the Toyota Racing Series he was signed on his 17th birthday as a member of the Red Bull Junior team. He was immediately whisked away to Europe to compete in two championships, the FIA Formula 3 and EuroFormula Open championships where he finished 11th and runner up respectively.
Topping off an excellent weekend at the Macau Grand Prix in November 2018, Liam finished top 10 as a rookie and then headed home to New Zealand after a very productive and busy year to defend his TRS title.
So here we are at Manfeild with the two of them split by just eight-points going into the final three races.
While they may have different backgrounds and very different paths to get here, they are remarkably similar in many ways.
Neither had a silver spoon or a wealthy family to pay their way. Both are dedicated professionals and frankly are good personable guys and very marketable.
That lack of funds means they have had to work and fight for everything they have achieved and both have a hunger in their approach to racing which gives them an inner air of confidence and belief in themselves.
They respect each other on track and have each other’s strengths and weaknesses at close quarters. Fraga with fasts starts at Hampton Downs and Lawson with bold overtakes at Pukekohe.
Either is capable of winning this weekend and while Lawson has won five races to Fraga’s two, Lawson is not underestimating his Brazilian rival. He has been the picture of consistency and poise both on and off the track.
A back-to-back championship win for Lawson this weekend will be popular amongst Kiwi motorsport and sports fans as a whole. It will be a brilliant send off for a teenager who is unlikely to race in New Zealand again as he’s now outgrown what it has to offer and like so many Kiwi greats before him, international success awaits.
Then again, a win for Igor Fraga could launch his motor racing notoriety beyond the gaming world and likewise launch Gran Turismo his sponsor in both gaming and racing into the mainstream of international racing.
So both will be worthy winners for different reasons and the good news for us, the fans, is this is just the start.
In a few weeks time both will be off to Bahrain to test for the respective FIA F3 teams and we will get a chance to watch them race head to head around the world.
But first there’s the matter of the 65th New Zealand Grand Prix may the best man on the day take home the win.